The grim reality, surrounding the loss of hundreds of jobs at ESPN Wednesday, rolled easily out of the mouth of a network executive.
“ESPN had been spoiled for so long,” he said. “But in the end, no matter what the reputation is, this still always proves to be a results-first business.”
ESPN just continues to play catch-up with the rest of the media world, where the AxMan has already cometh and continues to make frequent visits. With 300 layoffs in 2016 and probably 100-plus on this go-round, (albeit more recognizable names) ESPN is still in trouble.
The network is on the hook for billions in rights fees (NFL, College Football, NBA, NFL and others) at a time where subscribers are fleeing (the network has lost more than 1 million subscribers since January) and new blood is not coming in. ESPN must continue to cut costs in a hurry or remain a drag on its owner, Disney’s bottom line and stock price.
So, the voices schlepping microphones, like NFL reporter Ed Werder, NFL expert Trent Dilfer (who became expendable when Rex Ryan was hired), baseball writer Jayson Stark and college football voice Danny Kanell, became cannon fodder for suits sitting high above them in the corporate suites. The bet here is this latest round of cuts will not stop the bleeding.
Breaking up is hard to do. Those who got pink slips were not only hard working, they were driven toward excellence. In some cases, they were household names to people who followed the sport they covered. Yet through the eyes of executives, suits clearly under major pressure from accountants to make a major course correction at ESPN and right the ship, they had no impact whatsoever on the ratings.
So, the executive sits down, looks at what these people are making knowing cuts must be made, and realizes in this climate the salary does not justify the reporter, or SportsCenter anchor, contribution to the bottom line. ESPN can spin this all it wants but truth is it was, is and will forever be always be about the money.
In an email to staffers, ESPN boss John Skipper all but said he had too many one-trick ponies in his stable.
“Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value, and as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent—anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play—necessary to meet those demands,” Skipper wrote.
So, Skipper needs multi-taskers. One body must do the work of two.
It was not surprising ESPN dumped a number of hockey types. The World Wide Leader barely covers that sport. More surprising was sources saying ESPN will cut back its “Baseball Tonight” studio show to a Sunday only affair, which shows the Free World what ESPN thinks about baseball. As long as ESPN baseball pays Rob Manfred billions, the commish will likely bless this clear slight.
Did the voices “necessary to meet those demands” Skipper spoke of, come with a lower price tag compared with their colleagues who got the boot?
Or did they simply not fit in to ESPN new content strategy, which emphasizes digital and a more personality driven product, especially on “SportsCenter.” Were the voices fired Wednesday given enough time to adapt to that strategy?
Especially when ESPN for years, or at least since Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick left, liked their “SC” anchors as vanilla as possible.
“Face it, you couldn’t pick any of the current (SportsCenter) anchors out of a police lineup,” another industry suit said laughing.
ESPN has already put that strategy into effect. How well is this new “personality driven” “The Six” (SportsCenter) featuring Jemele Hill and Michael Smith working out? What about the highly hyped “personality driven” late “SC” with Scott Van Pelt? Both shows are inconsistent and have generated little buzz. And that’s being kind.
Get it? When the whip eventually came down at ESPN, and comes down again, those running the joint, don’t publicly self-examine and call their own lousy decisions into question. Like when Olbermann returned to ESPN. The faculty threw stupid money at him and got lousy ratings in return. They eventually dumped him.
The faculty coddled Bill Simmons and paid him big moolah. They put up with him being a pain in the tuchis, before they realized he made a minimal contribution to the bottom line. Then they got rid of him.
Chris Berman? Like him, love him or loath him, he was a personality. No one can ever convince us his departure was about ESPN not willing to pay him what he was accustomed to making.
For what’s going on here is not as much a change in the direction of ESPN content as a change in the salary structure. It reminds us when Capital Cities Communications purchased ABC, including ABC Sports, which was in its prime. The Cap Cities bosses started dumping salaries at ABC Sports and created a new frugal, buttoned down, culture.
No one believed something like that could ever happen at ABC.
Just like those who follow ESPN cannot see the handwriting is on the wall. Except some of those canned by ESPN to be replaced by those who work cheaper.
For now, after a Wicked Wednesday, the Bean Counters have taken over Bristol.